The construction industry is one of the UK’s largest economic sectors with a turnover of £370 billion pounds and employing around 3.1 million people. But there are two ticking time bombs waiting to explode under the construction industry; an ageing population coming up for retirement, and Brexit. If we add into this the recent commitment from the Government to build 300,000 new homes in the UK with the infrastructure to match, and the gap widens at every turn. In 2015, the Farmer Review calculated that the industry would need 700,000 new workers just to replace the retiring population and those moving on to other industries. This was all before our decision to leave the European Union which could see approximately 130,000 migrant EU construction workers choose to leave the UK. And as for the ageing workforce; over 30% of British born construction workers are over the age of 50, which means we stand to lose a third of the workforce over the next 10-15 years.
What are the effects on construction today?
The skills gap is not just being felt at the coal face; it is being felt across the board. According to the CITB, construction is most in need of architects, plasterers, plumbers, glaziers, carpenters/joiners, and electricians. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has recently reported that 62% of members surveyed are saying that the skills gap is having a direct impact on construction projects across the board with London cited as the area most feeling the pinch. The CITB suggests that half of the construction workers in the Capital were not born in Britain, with the majority of these migrant workers coming from the EU. Furthermore, one in four of these migrant workers is unsure as to whether they will still be in the UK in a year’s time depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
What are we doing to try to plug this gap?
In the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget it was announced that £64million would be invested in digital and construction training in a National Retraining Scheme aimed at giving adults the opportunity to transfer their skills to the construction industry. We also saw last year the introduction of the new Apprenticeship Levy, with a target of getting 3million new apprentices into the workplace by 2020. So far, the scheme has not been seen as a success, with the number of apprenticeships taken up falling by 26.5%. There has also been an announcement about the introduction of the new ‘T’ Level construction qualifications that are due to be introduced in 2020. But none of these solutions will sort out the short-term problem we face this decade.
What is the short-term solution?
Simply put - there is no short-term answer. Modular building may well cut out the need to have a transient workforce. It also reduces the working at height risk and controls safety and increases quality as structures can be built in a controlled environment. Maybe an overhaul of the construction card scheme could be a solution. Currently, trade cards expire after anywhere between two and five years, which means that someone who has worked in the construction industry for many years is physically not able to work if their card has expired. Not only can this prevent people from taking up jobs, it also requires both finances and resources to be diverted away from the projects themselves. As important as health, safety and training are on any construction project, overhauling this scheme could save valuable resources and keep the workforce in continuous employment. But again, like the Apprenticeship Levy, The National Retraining Scheme and the new ‘T’ Levels, these are not immediate solutions and with Brexit looming the skills gap will only widen.
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